How does one even begin to summarize a book like A. S. Byatt’s Possession? I have been pondering the problem for a week and am no closer to finding a definitive solution. It is a novel of gigantic proportions. I am not merely referring to its length (an impressive five hundred odd pages) but to its density – it would take whole chapters, of far more scholarly criticism than I am capable of, to do it justice.
First of all, this is an erudite novel. References to and quotations by Shakespeare, Dickens, Balzac, Michelet, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to name but a few, are worked deftly into the text, and the reader is expected to be familiar with them all. Indeed, voices – whether of writers past or characters present – play an important role in the novel, where alternating points of view create a veritable polyphony.
The structure of the novel is correspondingly polymorphous, shifting ceaselessly from letters to journals to poetry to narrative prose to biography to critical essays, and back again, as we follow British scholars Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey in their research on (fictitious) Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte. Roland’s discovery of a hitherto unknown correspondence between Ash and Lamotte takes him from the archives of the British Museum to Lincoln, where he joins forces with Maud, and from Lincoln to Yorkshire, and all the way to Brittany, in a race against rival colleagues to learn the truth about a forbidden passion that has lain secret for more than a hundred years. The story of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte unfolds parallel to that of Roland and Maud, and we are treated simultaneously to a detective story, a love story, and a satire of the academic milieu.
The Victorian era is brought to life in all the glory of its bonnets, crinolines and pocket-watches, its down-trodden governesses, dependent female relatives, and stifling attention to propriety. Yet the idea of the Victorian woman’s dependence on the protective male – whether father, husband or brother-in-law – is challenged from the start by strong-willed Christabel Lamotte, who insists on living alone (albeit with a female companion) and on the strength of her earnings as an author. She was probably not unique in doing so, but she was undoubtedly original. It is not insignificant that the theme of the woman-monster (via the mediaeval legend of Mélusine, who was half-woman, half-serpent) plays such an important part in her poetry.
When one seeks to understand Victorian society, it quickly becomes obvious the turning-point was the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Mentioned only once or twice by Byatt, it is nevertheless at the root of her reflection on the Victorian era. Its most immediate consequence was the birth of the amateur naturalist, complete with his butterfly net and his specimen boxes, but Byatt also shows how it led to a crisis of faith and to a deeper questioning of Man’s identity (still valid in the twentieth century, where Roland, Maud, their colleagues Professors Blackadder and Cropper, and through them, all biographers and critics, run the risk of losing themselves in the study of their subjects).
Indeed, Darwin’s theory of evolution rocks the Christian belief that Man was made in God’s image. Thus Ash is led to cast aside the centuries-old myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and to explore other myths of the creation of Man in his poetry: he draws heavily on Norse mythology, and on the creation of Ask and Embla, the first man and woman, from logs washed ashore by the ocean. Following in the footsteps of Swinburne, he also reworks the Greek and Latin myth of the Garden of Proserpina. In fact, the primeval garden as the birth-place of Man is a recurrent theme, of which Ash and Lamotte kissing in Richmond gardens is but one more Victorian variant (note that the Christian idea of original sin resurfaces here, for Lamotte, as a spinster, is meant to remain chaste, and Ash is a married man).
If Ash favours Greek and Norse myths, Lamotte, on the other hand, turns to the Celtic mythology of her French origins, and more particularly to tales of women betrayed by love to death or eternal anguish (like the fairy Mélusine I have already mentioned). This is how I discovered the legend of the drowned city of Ys: a city built below sea-level and protected by a high wall, through which a single gate led out. The key to this gate hung around the king’s neck, and every day, he himself went down to unlock it and allow the fishermen out to rejoin their boats. The king’s daughter, Princess Dahud, wanted her city to be beautiful and wealthy, and she brought a dragon there, to plunder all the merchant ships that sailed too close. The Princess also had a lustful nature, and every night she took a new lover to her bed. He would come to her wearing a black silk mask over his face, which in the morning would tighten about his throat and kill him. His body would then be thrown over the parapet into the ocean.
One day, a handsome knight came riding into Ys. Dahud fell in love with him at first sight and that night, she invited him up to her chamber. But the knight made a request of Dahud: he asked that she give him the key to the city gate, and for love of him, she crept into her father’s room and stole the key from around his neck. The knight opened the gate and let in the roaring angry ocean, which swept through the streets of Ys, drowning the inhabitants as they slept. Dahud too was drowned, and thus was punished for her sins. In Brittany, the fishermen still say they can hear the church bells of the drowned city chiming beneath the waters on certain dark nights. I have since discovered that Debussy wrote a Prelude for piano entitled “La cathédrale engloutie”, full of eerie echoes and ocean murmurings. According to another legend, Lutèce was renamed Paris, which in Breton means “like Ys”, because its architecture recalled the beauty of the streets and spires of the vanished city. They also say that the day the waters swallow up Paris, Ys will rise up once more from the waves, in all its former splendour…
Lastly, Possession is about knowledge. About the consuming greed for knowledge which spurs Roland, Maud and all the rest of the academic pack on in the blood hunt for the final word in the Ash-Lamotte affair. The fatal apple from the Garden of Eden is ever-present in the background, affecting all those who seek to pluck it from the branch, turning them into petty thieves, pushing them to deceit and base actions as they strive to outwit their rivals (though, luckily, Professor Cropper takes things too far, uniting everyone else in righteous indignation and thus enabling them to bring the proceedings to an honourable conclusion). It affects even the reader, who learns to interpret the written word: not to take texts at face value nor yet to bend them to a personal bias, but to read them with a critical eye, to note influences, pick up clues, and comment upon omissions and silences – in short to participate actively and intelligently in the reading process.
Possession is no beach romance to be taken up in an idle hour: it requires time and concentration, for it is complex, subtle, and thought-provoking. It is also magnificently written, utterly engrossing, often enormously funny, and always, always intensely human. In my view, it ranks alongside the classics, and its author alongside the greatest of our literary giants.
© Florence Berlioz 2010